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Roman Military Ranks

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Roman soldiers.

Before entering the world of the ranks of the Roman military an explanation of the social order is required. The reason class was an important factor was that only those men of the highest social rank could hold the highest ranks in the Roman army. As an example, because of his position in Roman society Julius Caesar held the ranks of Tribunus Laticlavius, Legatus Propraetor and Legatus Legionis.

All classes of freeborn citizens could rise to hold the other ranks, but the social barrier prevented promotion beyond Centurion (Centurio). It was always possible for a common man to rise in public life, and this opened the way for his family to rise in the military.

At first glance it looks to be an inefficient system1, and it led to some costly military blunders, most notably:

  • Cannae in 216 BC, where the legions were defeated by Carthaginian general Hannibal. This caused the reforms that fuelled the expansion of the Empire.
  • Defeat in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, and the loss of three legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, halted the expansion of the Empire into Germany, altering the development of modern Europe.

But the Romans learned from these, and the rank structure developed a system of checks and balances to avoid inexperienced commanders committing these errors. The system finally broke down when the money ran out and the Emperors simply lost control of the Empire.

The Roman Class System

The Upper Class

The Nobles also known as the Patrician class - the highest class in Roman society. All the elite families were in this class. To be ennobled, a family member at some time in the past had to have held the rank of Consul of Rome.

The Senatores (the Senatorial class) were the next highest class in Roman society. Although not the highest in rank they were arguably the most powerful social group, and many senators were also from the noble class. Eligibility for membership of this class was simple - you had to be wealthy and become a high-ranking politician. All members served (or had served) in the Senate and this rank extended to their families. There was one qualifying condition: to serve in the Senate, the senator had to prove that they had property worth at least a million sesterces. The service in the Senate was unpaid, and any trade but farming2 was forbidden.

Recognition of status was important and men belonging to this class wore a tunic with broad vertical stripes (purple in colour) from shoulder to hem, known as the tunica laticlavia.

The Eques Romanus3 (the Equites or Equestrian class) were the next highest class in Roman society. The connection to horses in Roman culture was symbolic but was to deepen as the connection between the upper classes and horses developed. Eligibility for membership of this class was simple - you had to be wealthy (although not as rich as a senator). Property worth at least 400,000 sesterces was all that was required, and family were considered of the same class. The Equestrian class was involved in the type of business that was considered below the dignity of senators and nobles - that was almost everything apart from farming.

Equestrians could become senators, but this was difficult as the trade of the equestrian could be a barrier to election to the senate. Money was seldom a barrier as equestrians were often very wealthy. Again, status was important, and men belonging to this class wore a tunic with narrow vertical stripes from shoulder to hem, known as the tunica angusticlavia.

The Lower Classes

All other Roman freeborn citizens were the Plebeians (commoners). Sometimes known as vulgus citizens, they formed the bulk of the population of the Empire. To be a freeborn citizen both your parents had to be citizens, there was no other qualification required to be a member of this class.

The Peregrini (freeborn) men and women who originated in Roman territories were the class of freeborn foreigners. These people were often not born Roman, but were granted citizenship as Rome expanded the Empire to include their homelands.

Liberti (ex-slaves) were the next class. Manumission was the act of granting freedom to a slave. A slave was often granted freedom in a master's will, or if the master allowed, their freedom could be purchased. Also known as libertini, these freed slaves could become citizens, and their children freeborn were either commoners or foreigners.

Slervi (slaves). This was a system where individuals were owned by the upper classes, or anyone with enough money to buy a servant. Slaves were men and women born into slavery, captured in war or by criminal act4 and sold into slavery.

That is the basic structure of Roman society. There was movement up and down between the classes, and which class you belonged to was very important, having influence on the career that was open to a person in public life.

The Ranks of the Roman Copiae - the Legions

To avoid confusion, there are no comparisons to ranks in a modern army.

Senior Officers

Legate ('Legatus'): This is an example of the class system in action, as only men of the Senatorial or Noble class could command a legion. The commanders of the legions were of two types:

  • Legatus Propraetor: a senator or ex-consul given command of a legion (or legions) on provincial service, who was also the provincial governor of the region.
  • Legatus Legionis: an experienced commander given command of one of the city of Rome's legions.

Tribunes ('Tribunus'): In any legion there were six Tribunes. The senior Tribune (Tribunus Laticlavius) acting as second-in-command was from the Senatorial or Noble class to enable him to hold the rank, and have the ability to command the Junior Tribunes (Tribuni Angusticlavi) from the lower Equestrian class.

Praefectus Castrorum ('Camp Prefect'): This officer was normally a time-served Centurion Hastatus Prior who had been made a member of equestrian rank on retirement. This experienced officer was the legion's battle commander, and was second-in-command during hostilities, even though he was originally of a lower social status than the Tribunes. This avoided the risk of an inexperienced officer (promoted due to status) making mistakes in battle5.

In support there were five Junior Tribunes (Tribuni Angusticlavii) who were from the Equestrian class. Nearly all these Equestrian class tribunes had commanded a variety of units to gain experience.

Centurio ('Centurion, also known as Ordinarius'): An officer in command of a century, dating from Rome's Etruscan beginnings it meant the command of one hundred men. This number of men was the standard unit size to muster in times of war, however that exact number couldn't be guaranteed and sometimes there were as few as 80. Later, in the early years of Rome's expansion, a century contained 120 men. This was subsequently reduced to 100, and in the time of the Emperors it was reduced again to 80 men.

There were various levels of seniority amongst the legion's Senior Centurions, based upon their cohorts' position in the legions battle formation, and their century's position in the cohort. The rank in order of seniority within a cohort was:

  • Centurion Hastatus Prior ('first spear'): often known as the Primus Pilus. This officer was the senior centurion of the legion commanding the first cohort. A successful Centurion Hastatus Prior was often made a member of the equestrian rank on retirement.

Junior Officers

  • Centurion Princeps Prior - or first leader
  • Centurion Pilus Prior - or first lowest

They were in turn supported by junior Centurions:

  • Centurion Hastatus Posterior - or rear spear
  • Centurion Princeps Posterior - or rear leader
  • Centurion Pilus Posterior - or rear lowest

Each Centurion was in command of a century of 80 men from the time of Augustus (onward 30 BC), prior to that, a century consisted of 120 men.

Non-commissioned Officers

Optio Centuriae ('Optio Centurion, a rear rank officer rated as an Optaio often came with a pay upgrade'): This officer was appointed from the ranks by his Centurion - it was his duty to command the rear of the century and act as the Centurion's second-in-command. His badge of office was a wooden staff or rod, often used to back his orders. In order to be visible in action, the Optio Centuriae had helmets with black and white plumes mounted fore and aft, with the tail hanging at the rear of the helmet.

Duplicarius ('second in command to the Decurion who commanded a single turmae'): a rank that was signified by a pay rate twice that of a legionary, or Sesquiplicarius Salararius, third in command to the Decurion.

Tesserarius ('watch officer'): was responsible for the distribution of the watch words issued by the commanding officer to the guard commanders, and preventing any unauthorised use.

Cornicularius ('administrator'): The military title given to administrative deputy of the Legate and various senior officers.

Decanus: commanded the smallest unit in the legion known as an octet, contubernium or eight-man unit. This unit shared a tent, travelled and fought together. Ten contubernium made up a century.

Aquilifer ('the eagle bearer'): The legion's eagle was the physical representation of the legion. If the eagle was lost the legion was disgraced and the unit was often disbanded.

Signifer ('the standard bearer'): Each century and cohort had a standard bearer. The standard (signum) was the unit's emblem, typically three disc emblems mounted vertically. These displayed the unit's awards and decorations. The top of the standard had an emblem, commonly a spear, a hand, or a wreath.

Imaginifer ('bearer of the standard with the image of the Emperor'): This was a rank dating from the reign of Augustus (27 BC - 14 AD), and was to encourage the troops' loyalty to the Emperor. The Imaginifer was only stationed in the leading cohort.

Vexillarius: or vexillifer (flag bearer). The vexillum (flag) was hung by its top edge from a 'T'-shaped flag staff; this slowly fell out of use - the Praetorian Guard were the last unit to use the device. A Vexillation Fortress has been named after a company standard and a company of men. The cavalry equivalent was the draconarius, who carried the standard known as a draco.

Cornicularius ('administrator'): This was the rank held by the administrative assistant to the Legate or other high ranking officers.

Cornicen ('the horn blower'): Worked with the signifer drawing the attention of the men to the centurion's signals, and issued the audible commands of the officers. The horn was a coiled, circular instrument carried on the shoulder of the Cornicen.

The Ordinary Legionary Ranks

Discens ('legionary in special training'): Ranked slightly higher than the ordinary legionary, if only for the fact that he received extra pay.

Miles6 ('ordinary legionary'): and Miles Gregarius (ordinary legionary of good standing), the title was granted for conduct in battle, or good conduct. Munifex is not a rank; it means a miles who is fit for duty.

Do not confuse with the term Clibanarius; this was a miles clad in heavy armour and not a rank. These men were grouped in units of 80 to form a century. Two centuries formed a Maniple or Manlpulus. Three Maniples were grouped to form a Cohort. This changed in 106 BC when reforms abolished the Maniple, reorganising the legion's 30 Maniples into 10 Cohorts.

Tiro Newly-recruited Legionary in training.

Special Duty Unusual or Rarely Used Ranks

Beneficiarius: A beneficiarius was a rank given to a senior soldier chosen from the legionary troops. He served as an orderly assigned to a senior officer, to serve as his aide. He was often assigned administrative duties, collected customs duty or tax or supervised the policing of a district, as well as many other duties assigned to this rank.

  • Beneficiarius Consularis - Consular aid
  • Beneficiarius Tribuni - aid to a Tribune
  • Beneficiarius Interpretes - interpreters
  • Beneficiarius Notarii - secretaries
  • Beneficiarius Librarii - archivists
  • Beneficiarius Exceptores - short-hand writers
  • Beneficiarius Exacti - recorders
  • Beneficiarius Haruspices - seers
  • Beneficiarius Classis - fleet quartermaster.

Triplicarius: This was a very rare rank that was given to a senior soldier who had achieved status by experience, and was rewarded with a rate of pay three times that of an ordinary legionary.

Curator Veteranorum ('a commander of a veteran legionary unit'): a unit commander of men serving beyond their retirement age. These men were held in service or brought out of retirement in time of civil unrest or other emergency.

Missicus ('a retired veteran Legionary'): these veteran soldiers received a land grant to enable them to settle into civilian life. These men and their families were often the first settlers in newly-conquered lands.

Support Personnel

Explorator a scout - the term also applied to spies working with forward units.

Mensor a surveyor - a team of surveyors was referred to as Metatore.

Capsarius a doctor or Medicus (doctor or field medic). The Roman army had a very proficient army medical service, not equalled for 1,400 years.

Cerarius a bookkeeper - named after the cera, the wax tablet he always used.

Mulio a mule driver - part of the impedimenta (baggage train) mainly used for carrying the tents, food and tools. The troops were able to travel through hostile territory uncluttered and ready to fight.

1A similar system of promotion by status and wealth was also used in Britain from the Norman conquest to the time of Wellington, although Cromwell tried to change this by promoting men due to their ability. The system built the British Empire despite its obvious faults, again this failed due to similar reasons.2Families of this rank owned massive estates and produced vast amounts of food.3Equivalent to knights.4Travellers were often captured on the road and sold on as proceeds of the robbery.5Note the examples of Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus, both with a legion, who lost against Spartacus due to inexperience.6Miles entered the English language as a measurement of distance due to the law that allowed a Roman soldier to make a local(s) carry his baggage for a mile. Referred to in the scriptures as 'Go the extra mile'.

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